01 September 2019

Business of Sport

Mug’s game?

The death of a football club causes distress like no other business failure. Ian Ridley considers the sad case of Bury and suggests a way forward

There is usually a mug willing to save a football club. Beleaguered Bolton Wanderers have found themselves one, or several, and are saved at the last. Not so their Lancastrian neighbours, Bury. The game’s grim reaper has finally got the latest club to mismanage and overspend.

Many will be wondering what the fuss is about. Bury are basically a small business of the sort that, sadly, but inevitably, goes to the wall every day. They have been badly run for years and you can only defy the market for so long, even in the wacky world of English moneyball. Down the years, clubs such as Accrington Stanley, Aldershot and Maidstone United have discovered that too.



Voices of Bury FC
Helen Richardson, 34

I was brought up on Gigg Lane. My Dad left the ground one day and saw a house was for sale. He took down the for sale sign there and then. The house is right opposite the ground. We could leave at 5 to 3 and still make it for kick off…I’ve been crying all night. It’s just heartbreaking. I’m gutted, I feel bereaved – and angry…It’s the time I get to spend with my Dad.


But football clubs are not shops or restaurants. Their fortunes are central to the daily lives of thousands in their town and beyond. They also bring in away supporters on matchdays who help keep those shops and restaurants going.

People who don’t follow the game, will still not get this. Law of the jungle and all that. Besides, don’t we have more to worry about just now?

Even many lured by the Premier League’s brassy glamour (where, in the words of Dolly Parton, it can cost a lot of money to look cheap) will simply shrug shoulders, turn to their satellite station and check their phone for the latest odds from the bookies.

Then there are the soccer saddoes like me who detest the fact that another part of the English game’s social and geographical fabric has been torn away and the lives of “ordinary” folk made miserable. It may not be a big business, but it is a serious one. What’s to be done when Saturday comes?

Last year, I took part in a theatre tour of Liverpool “legends”, John Barnes, Jan Molby and Neil Ruddock. We went to several north-west venues. I had been to or through these places many times in my life, but not for years. I was shocked at the Poundshop deterioration of infrastructure. Of appearance. Of quality of life.

Now, only the people involved will know if they really voted to leave the European Union. Or perhaps they were making the Agincourt archer’s famous gesture towards the current political classes at what had happened to their towns, their jobs, their lives.



Voices of Bury FC
Gary Mack, 54

I don’t really know what’s it all about? Is it to do with money? I’ve been a fan for ages, nearly all my life, I’m 54. It just means everything. I don’t know what to do with my Saturdays now. It’s devastating really. I’m not angry, I’m upset by it, like, but what can you do?


Oh come on, what has that to do with Bury? With football? Nothing in particular and everything in general. Football does not exist in a vacuum. The national sport has always reflected the society in which it operates. A society that these days pays millions to its CEOs, while “ordinary” people are on zero-hours contracts and £8.21 an hour. Now compare the Premier League and the lower echelons of the English game.

Like similar two-fingered waving towns, Bury voted 54-46 for Brexit. Meanwhile, their club became the epitome of the gap between the have-yachts and have-nots in football. They blame all the money going into that voracious, bloated Premier League that is not reaching them. Trickle-down economics? My arse, as they would say in Lancashire.

Just as many feel disenfranchised by politicians, so Bury fans have been ill-served by owners, the two most recent in particular. The penultimate one, Stewart Day, borrowed money for his building business against Bury’s main asset, their Gigg Lane ground, until the debt reached a 138 per cent interest rate per annum and his company went bust.

Last December, he sold the club for just £1 – not an uncommon price for a football club as new owners must take on debt and players’ contracts – to Steve Dale. At first, all seemed well and Bury were even promoted from League Two to League One. Two steps away from the Premier League! Good old Steve, happy to describe himself as a philanthropist.

But this edifice was built on sand. Fine sand. A complex web of deals to sell off old debt, allied to the building-up of new debt to get Bury promoted, with revenue not matching expenditure, meant that wages went unpaid. The League at first indulged him when he insisted the club was solvent, then finally acted when a sale fell through.

This was a man who had a history of trading in insolvent companies, who had once said he didn’t even know Bury had a team. The attraction was clear: real estate to borrow against. In the end, creditors were owed more than £5 million. (I am actually one of them; my small publishing company supplied books for their club shop and was never paid our share of the few hundred quid they made). That didn’t even include what was owed to the staff in back pay.

As one of the greatest of all sports writers, Patrick Collins, once wrote so memorably: “I don’t know where football keeps finding these people but I wish it would stop looking.”



Voices of Bury FC
Mark Goodall, 57, with Doris the dog

I can’t believe it. I cannot believe it. It’s your life, innit… I think if you’re a lower division supporter, and you have your own club, you get so involved with it, and that’s what makes you feel how you feel… Once Bury is gone, that is me, I will not follow football, I’m finished with football. Because I just think that the money at the top end of football is horrendous.


I have experience of this kind of thing, and I even wrote a book, Floodlit Dreams. Its subtitle – How to Save a Football Club – was meant to be ironic.

Back in 2003, tired of the travails of my hometown team, Weymouth, in the Southern League, I offered to chair the club, buying shares and working with the board. After a protracted wrangle – a technical term in football – they agreed, but stood down to leave me in the spotlight…and the firing line.

Still, after hiring as manager Steve Claridge, who had once been a Weymouth player, and who had enjoyed success with Leicester City in the Premier League, we more than doubled attendances, trebled commercial income, and took the team from 17th to 2nd in the table. This attracted the attention of a local hotelier, who bought shares, forced me out, then sacked Claridge.

Two years later, despite – or probably because of – a promotion to what is now the top division of non-League football, the National League, and having lost £3 million, the same hotelier phoned me to offer the club for £1 “because you love it more than anyone else”. By then, he was a nervous, chain-smoking wreck. He died a few years later.

Never again, I said.



Voices of Bury FC
Stephen Colvin, 55

It’s like a funeral, it’s like someone’s died. It’s worse than that. A whole club’s died. And it’s down to two men’s greed. We’ve been stitched up, it’s manufactured… I don’t know what I’m going to do with my weekends in the future now – because it’s not just a game, it’s a whole day out.


Instead, I went back to football with Salisbury FC. Their previous incarnation, Salisbury City, had gone bust through overspending to reach the top tier of non-League football. The manager asked to pick up the pieces and help form a new club was my old friend, Steve Claridge. I couldn’t refuse his request for help.

I found a city in mourning for its team. There may have been fewer than 1,000 people who attended regularly, but it meant the world to them.

We had to start at Step Five, which is to say five divisions below the Football League. I lasted three seasons, during which the canny Claridge won two promotions. The club now resides in the Southern League at Step Three.

The task for any potential successor to Bury FC will be starting again from its finishing point. Were there someone to take on the existing club and its £5 million debt (highly unlikely), the Football Association might well place them in the National League, one tier beneath the Football League.

For a new club, the rules decree that it should start at Step 5 under a new name; in Bury’s case, probably the North-West Counties League as Bury Town. They would, however, be allowed to retain their nickname.

The Shakers could yet become the wakers. This is all not the disaster it might feel just now to crestfallen Bury fans. Supporters of AFC Wimbledon, now back in League One, often say how much they enjoyed the Non-League days following the departure of their original FA Cup-winning club to Milton Keynes (where it became Milton Keynes Dons – a new club).



Voices of Bury FC
Chris Heywood, 66

It was part of my life, part of my family, it was my life… obviously when I got married, I was taking my children, and my children have been going since they were two or three years old. And then my grandson… But we’ll rise again. We’ll rise again… We’ve got to get hold of that ground, haven’t we?


As I saw first hand, there can be a new camaraderie. The key tasks for any new Bury club will be to try to secure Gigg Lane as a home ground – no easy feat, given the tortuous ownership issues – and second, to maintain that evangelical spirit when the politics and personalities that bedevil any and every football club resurface. The fun of football that can be found at any level will return.

There will now be calls for more regulation to prevent such states of affairs, such owners, as suffered by Bury appearing again. The Football League will trot out its “lessons to be learned” line. In future, those who put the mess in messiah must be more closely scrutinised, and legislation must require real proof of funds. But it will be too late for Bury. No matter the amount of regulation or scrutiny, one tenet should be paramount in future: it is the quality and motives of those who acquire football clubs that will always determine the sport’s success on and off the field. There’s not much money to be made outside the Premier League. Owners must love the game and love their club.

Memo to Bury fans in particular and others in general: find yourself an owner who looks at you like that.

Portraits by Steve Morgan for Tortoise

 

 

 

Further reading

For the full story of Weymouth FC and me – Floodlit Dreams: How to Save a Football Club by Ian Ridley

State of Play: Under the Skin of the Modern Game by Michael Calvin. It does what it says on the cover

The Pie at Night: In Search of the North at Play by Stuart Maconie. Especially the chapter ‘Kicking A Ball About’